Picks and Pans Review: The Captain and the Enemy

updated 11/14/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/14/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Graham Greene

Greene's 24th novel ends abruptly in a let's-wrap-it-up flurry of Latin American political chicanery and spy business violence. It's routine stuff for Greene and dulls the pleasure of what has gone before—dulls but does not obliterate. The main character, the Captain, is too oddly ingratiating, too artfully sketched, too clever a salute to the value of blind optimism to be eclipsed. He is an Englishman who roams the world trying his hand at assorted crimes—theft, smuggling, gunrunning—seeking a big score symbolized to him by the notion of mule trains hauling sacks of gold. His story is told in the casual autobiography of Jim, his ersatz son. Actually, the Captain won Jim in a chess game (or maybe it was backgammon, attention to detail and truth not being one of the Captain's virtues). The loser was a kind of friend known—even to Jim, the man's son—as the Devil. Jim's mother is dead, his father is out of the picture, and at his boarding school Jim has become part of an outcast group called the Amalekites. So he is pleased when the Captain claims him. For his part, the Captain only wants the boy so that his friend Liza, who always wanted but can't bear children, will have company when he is away—and he is away most of the time. The Captain and Liza have an informal relationship; Jim is not even sure that they are lovers. But the Captain (who was probably only a sergeant in World War II) is devoted in his way, regularly sending Liza money and letters that promise her a life of ease. "Ah, you'll have to learn to tell a lie properly," the Captain cautions Jim. "What's the good of a lie if it's seen through? When I tell a lie no one can tell it from the gospel truth. Sometimes I can't even tell it myself." Jim envies the Captain's strangely expressed passions, but after one of his long absences, Jim wonders, "Did I miss him? I have no memory of any emotion unless it was the occasional wild desire for something interesting to happen." And thinking of the Captain and Liza's fidelity, he muses, "In my experience love was like an attack of flu and one recovered as quickly. Each love affair was like a vaccine. It helped you to get through the next attack more easily." As long as Greene is in that kind of sly, wise mood, this book has a bittersweet charm. Finally, though, the now-grown Jim goes to Panama to find the Captain and gets involved in the melodramatic events, including even shenanigans with the Sandinistas, that end the book in such an unsatisfying and literally anticlimactic way. What stays in the mind is Greene questioning the very existence of love and truth, of his having Jim reflect that the Captain "is to me an eternal question mark never to be answered, like the existence of God, and so, as all theologians do, I continue to write in order to turn the question over and over without any hope of an answer." (Viking, $17.95)

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